We were just about to ask our hostess at Poteau African Village Restaurant to help us with the menu when she pulled up a chair and sat down at our table.
She proudly explained some popular dishes from several West African countries offered on the menu, showing she was passionate about the items she makes daily from scratch. If passion seems an overused restaurant word, it suited our hostess, who also turned out to be our server and chef.
Poteau African Village is on Tennessee Avenue in Atlantic City, between restaurants serving Korean, Filipino and Japanese cuisine, and just up the street from an Irish pub. We had forgotten how multicultural the side streets of Atlantic City can be, but we welcomed the opportunity to try new cuisines.
No section for appetizers is listed on the colorful laminated menu, but when we asked for a starter, a chicken and potato soup ($3) was suggested. Barely warm, the soup was creamy, the way one would expect a French-style soup to be, with large chunks of potato and small pieces of chicken. We thought we detected a smokey flavor in the soup, but that turned out to be smoked fish working in the kitchen.
After discussing the national dishes of Ghana, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Senegal, we settled on attieke with fish ($12.99) from the Cote d'Ivoire. Attieke is a grated and fermented cassava root that reminded us of couscous, with a lot of flavor from whatever liquid in which had been cooked. The simply titled "fish" turned out to be a whole tilapia, head and tail left on, deep fried on its flavorful frame. But it was the cassava that got top billing, topped with sauteed onions and red and orange peppers and finished with fried plantains. Two side dishes of cooked fresh tomatoes and cucumbers and peas in a yogurt-like sauce were both fresh and refreshing.
We also sampled the curry goat ($13.99), tender chunks of meat and vegetables, braised in a brown curry sauce and served with a dome of white rice. Perfectly prepared and seasoned, but not overly spicy, it was finished with the care only ethnic cooks seem able to impart to their ingredients. Fresh-steamed broccoli florets were served on the side. A word of warning to those unfamiliar with goat, watch out for small bones. But it is those same bones that give this stew such a deep flavor.
Vimto, a black currant and raspberry flavored beverage, was lightly carbonated. The pound cake we had for dessert was probably purchased at another business.
Since everything else at Poteau African Village is made from scratch, you will wait a little longer for your food to be prepared. But it's worth the wait, if the restaurant is not too full.
The dining room was simple and spotless, with mirrors all around giving the effect of a larger room. Drums, tribal masks, and flags from Ghana, Senegal, and Liberia decorated the walls, along with images of African women wearing beautiful ceremonial garb. Floors and parts of the walls featured black and white tile, and the rest of the room was painted in a glowing sunset shade of red-orange. A wooden beaded fly curtain covered the doorway to the restrooms. Each faux marble topped table featured a rattan mat with a dish of wrapped candy-striped mints.
While in an upscale restaurant the server, hostess, or chef would never be expected to join guests at their table. At Poteau African Village, it set the stage for what felt much more like a home-style family meal. The chef's two young children sat near us, doing what all sisters like to do: playing with their cell phones, and alternately arguing and laughing with each other.
Music was provided by a series of videos on a centrally located flat screen television. Colorfully dressed singers harmonized to music so enchanting, we caught ourselves moving our shoulders in time to the beat - in between bites of dinner.
Poteau African Village is one of those little gems that is so good, you are almost afraid to share for fear of it losing its easygoing qualities.
131 S. Tennessee Ave., Atlantic City
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Mondays to Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, closed Sundays
Liquor license: BYO
Credit cards: Most major
Disabled access: Yes
Price range: Entrees $6.99 to $13.99, sides $2 to $10
Our bill for 2: $39 plus tip